Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Martin Spychal, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar, Martin Spychal, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research, gave a paper on Thomas Drummond and the 1832 Reform Act. Here Martin gives an overview of his paper…

Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh
Thomas Drummond (c) The University of Edinburgh

Thomas Drummond is best known for his invention of a portable limelight device (which would illuminate the world of nineteenth-century theatre) and his tireless efforts as Under-Secretary for Ireland between 1835 and 1840, which would contribute to his premature death at the age of 43. Comparatively less is known about his work supervising the English and Welsh borough boundary commission for the Grey ministry between August 1831 and September 1832. This is something of an anomaly given that so much historical ink has been spilled over Britain’s first Reform Act. Whereas Whig reforms to the poor law and municipal corporations during the 1830s have become synonymous with the names of Edwin Chadwick and Joseph Parkes, it is unlikely that many have reserved a similar place for Drummond in their mental map of 1832.[1]

Drummond was a Royal Engineer and spent the 1820s working for the Ordnance Survey before being commissioned to develop limelight for use in lighthouses by the Trinity House Corporation in 1829 – he had spent the past few years modifying Gurney’s limelight for surveying in Ireland’s treacherous conditions. His subsequent experimentations with limelight near the Tower of London attracted considerable attention during 1830 and even led to him dining with the King at the Royal Palace in Brighton in January 1831. These demonstrations also brought him to the attention of Lord Brougham, and in March 1831 (the same month the Grey ministry introduced its first reform bill) Drummond gave a private demonstration of his light to the Lord Chancellor in a mutual friend’s greenhouse on Park Road, Marylebone. Drummond was subsequently introduced into the social circles associated with Brougham and his ‘godless institutions’ of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) and the London University (now UCL) in Bloomsbury.[2] It also led to Brougham’s suggestion of Drummond’s services to the cabinet when serious planning for the work of a boundary commission commenced in the summer of 1831.

As a result of this recommendation, Drummond set to work with ministers on setting up a boundary commission during August 1831 – and, in a move clearly indicative of Brougham and Drummond’s influence, 14 men with links to the SDUK and 7 men from the Royal Engineers or Royal Artillery were recruited to be assistant boundary commissioners. Drummond and Brougham had lofty ambitions for the commission. Brougham informed Lord Grey that in three months the commission would have completed a detailed cartographical survey of every English and Welsh borough; collected a range of locally-held ancient boundary and household valuation data from local authorities; completed an economic and social survey of each borough; and proposed new parliamentary boundaries for every borough scheduled to survive or be enfranchised by the reform bill. The extent of this task should not be underestimated – the Ordnance Survey had still not surveyed many of England’s northern towns and the state had never previously completed a survey of its ancient electoral system. Furthermore, local authorities had been unwilling to share even a fraction of this data when, during the 1820s, Brougham and his colleagues had attempted to institute minor reforms to the electoral system.[3] Accordingly, Grey and other cabinet members were highly sceptical about Drummond and Brougham’s plans, and thought it more likely the work would take three years to complete.[4]

Drummond defied Grey’s expectations, and, under his careful superintendence, the commission had completed most of its initial work by late November 1831. This led to a further expansion of the commission and of Drummond’s responsibilities, as he and his team were given three weeks to survey England’s rotten boroughs and remodel the government’s disfranchisement schedules for the government’s third reform bill.

The immediate product of the commission’s work would be nine volumes of boundary reports, the 1832 Boundary Act, and the Reform Act’s remodeled disfranchisement schedules (which became known as Drummond’s List). Drummond’s template for a boundary commission for England and Wales would also be replicated in Scotland and Ireland, whose own parliamentary boundaries needed to be redrawn prior to reformed elections taking place. Importantly, the work of these boundary commissions meant that reformed elections could take place in September 1832, almost as soon as the Grey ministry’s reform legislation had received Royal Assent.

Using a range of archival material both familiar and unfamiliar to historians of 1832, my own doctoral research explores these boundary commissions in much more detail, focusing in particular on English parliamentary boundary reform and its electoral and non-electoral impact following 1832.


Our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar takes place tonight, when our own Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, will speak on ‘The uses of a parliamentary diary in the making of a royalist: the case of Henry Townshend of Worcestershire, 1640-3′. Hope you can join us!

[1] Two recent exceptions to this rule are Philip Salmon and Stephen Thompson. See P. Salmon, ‘The English reform legislation, 1831–32’, in The House of Commons, 182032, ed. D. Fisher (Cambridge, 2009), vol. 1, 374–412; S. J. Thompson, ‘Population combined with wealth and taxation, statistics representation and the making of the 1832 Reform Act’, in Tom Crook and Glen O’Hara, G (eds.), Statistics and the public sphere, numbers and the people in Modern Britain, c. 18002000 (New York, 2011).

[2] see Rosemary Ashton, Victorian Bloomsbury, (London, 2012), 25 – 81.

[3] P. Salmon, Reform should begin at home’: English Municipal and Parliamentary Reform, 1818-32’, Parliamentary History, 24, 1, 93-113.

[4] H.Brougham, The Life and Times of Henry Lord Brougham, vol. 3, (London, 1871), 379.

3 thoughts on “Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Martin Spychal, ‘One of the best men of business we had ever met’: Thomas Drummond, the boundary commission and the 1832 Reform Act

  1. Reblogged this on The Victorian Commons and commented:

    Our PhD student Martin Spychal (on an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and the Institute of Historical Research) shares some of his research on the 1831-2 boundary commission, an undertaking of great significance for our project.

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